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• Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History
Shakespeare's Coat of Arms

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The controversy over Shakespeare's grant of arms

In 1602, twenty-three recently-granted coats of arms, including arms originally granted to Shakespeare’s father, were disputed by York Herald, Ralph Brooke.  John Shakespeare died in 1601, and William Shakespeare inherited the arms at his father’s death. Brooke charged that Shakespeare’s arms were too similar to existing coats of arms, and that the family was unworthy.

Heralds William Camden and William Dethick defended the grant by clearly differentiating the arms from those of other individuals and pointing out that John Shakespeare was a justice of the peace of Stratford upon Avon who married the daughter and heir of the Arden estate. And beyond that, he "was of good substance and habelitie [ability]."


When Brooke challenged the group of arms granted by William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, he identified Shakespeare's arms as belonging to "Shakespear the Player by Garter." To describe Shakespeare as a Player rather than playwright was derogatory.


In the image top right, the arms are drawn in trick; that is, the colors are indicated by the letters o (Or, or gold), s (Sable, or black), and Ar (Argent, or silver). The manuscript in which these arms appear is a ca. 1700 copy, copiously annotated by the herald Peter Le Neve (d. 1729), Norroy King of Arms. It was copied directly from Ralph Brooke's original, which no longer survives.


Shakespeare's arms appear in a few later collections of coats of arms, such as this example from 1677, image bottom right, where they are described at the bottom of the left-hand page as "Shakespear, the great Poet and Commedian, bare on a Bend : a Spear ." The three blanks, where one would expect to see gold, sable, and gold (with a silver tip), indicate that the compiler knew only an uncolored version of the arms, such as that on a wax seal impression. The compiler was also unsure whether the crest featured a dove or an eagle, when in fact it is a falcon: "And for his Crest, Vpon a Torce of his Colours, a Doue Volant or Eagle."  "Commedian" in this context means a writer of comedies, or non-tragic plays.

Peter Le Neve. Shakespeare's coat of arms. Manuscript, ca. 1700

A list of gentlemen and their coats of arms and crests. Manuscript, ca. 1677

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